Alice Shih

Yale Law Study on Gender: Recommendations

Over the course of the past few weeks, this series has examined the findings from Yale Law Women's study, Yale Law School Faculty & Students Speak Up About Gender: Ten Years Later. The study examined in-class and out-of-class dynamics, professors’ perspectives, and students’ perspectives. These findings beg the question, now what? 

The study is conscientious in recognizing that the disparity must be addressed holistically since neither students, professors, nor the law school administration is completely responsible for the disparity, nor does any one of these groups completely bear the burden of achieving a more equal representation among women and men. Therefore, the study provides recommendations for students, professors, and the law school administration.  Each of these recommendations will be discussed below.

For students: The study recommends that students actively take part in changing the classroom dynamic through three steps.

  1.  Break the ice early: Students and professors noted that a students’ first time to speak in a class was the most difficult. However, once the ice was broken, students were more likely to participate in future classes. Therefore, students should break the ice and speak early in the semester.
  2. Prepare to participate: Students should prioritize their classes and choose classes in which to prepare to participate. It may be unrealistic to prepare fully for every class, but if a student focuses on one or two classes to actively participate in, he or she can prepare something to say ahead of time. This will also reduce anxiety to come up with a “brilliant” comment on the spot.
  3. Is it me?: Every student should be aware of how he or she contributes to the classroom dynamic. Students should ask, “Am I hogging the spotlight?” or “Do I never speak?” Then take appropriate steps to contribute, rather than detract from the classroom dynamic.

Next, the study sets for recommendations for improving faculty-student relationships.

  1. You’re entitled!: Students should know that they are entitled to faculty time and therefore they should reach out to faculty early in the semester and often.
  2. Awkward? Try again: Once a student does reach out to faculty, he or she should not be deterred by initial awkwardness. These relationships take time to build and at the beginning, both may be looking for common ground. Furthermore, professor’s reported that they do not remember “awkward” moments when students later bring them up.
  3. Strategy: Be strategic and invest in a few faculty members who can help you reach your goals. A few strong recommenders are better than a large number of professors who barely know you. Remember, a faculty-student relationship is like any other type of relationship: it takes time and due diligence to build and maintain.

For Professors: The study also set forth easy to follow recommendations for faculty to address gender disparity found inside and outside of their classrooms.

  1. The 5-second rule – Do not always call on the first person to raise his or her hand. Wait five seconds to see if anyone else volunteers and try to call on those who have not yet spoken or do not speak as often. Occasionally specify that you would like to hear from someone who has not yet spoken.
  2. Video self teaching: It is difficult to observe classroom dynamics while simultaneously teaching. Many professors were surprised by and curious about their classroom dynamic as observed by the study. Small actions (such as calling on students in the front row, who may happen to be all of one gender) may lead to greater gender disparity but are easily altered.
  3. Panel system: Students overwhelmingly requested some form of cold calling, and many specified that they prefer panel systems. The Speak Up study suggests, however, that panels are often not enough to achieve equity of participation. It is important to combine this method with conscious classroom management practices. This could include implementing systems such as the 5-second rule and maintaining a constant awareness of who has been talking and who has not.  It could also include a more structured panel system or cold-call system that ensures students in small group classes participate once per week and students in large section classes participate once per three weeks (or some other reasonable interval).
  4. Before Class Questions: Think about ways to get students engaged with the material before class so that they are prepared and feel comfortable participating. Providing questions that you plan to address during class discussion can make students more comfortable participating and confidant that their ideas are thought-out enough to share.
  5. Mandatory office hours – Professors should make clear that all students are expected to attend office hours at least once in the semester. It might be useful to set a time frame for when this should happen, the earlier the better (such as within the first month or two months).

For the Administration: Administrators also have an important role in facilitating a more gender equal classroom. Nearly all law schools provide almost no pedagogical training. Professors and students alike noted that this was a big problem. There are a number of ways the administration can provide pedagogical guidance. Some are outlined below:

  1. Award good teaching: Reward and recognize excellent teaching. Alternatively, identify and address sub-par teaching.
  2. Pedagogical workshop: Bring in an expert to lead a pedagogical workshop. Currently no such resource exists in the majority of law schools.
  3. 1-on-1 consultation: Make an expert available for 1-on-1 consultation for faculty members to receive specific recommendations on how they can improve as teachers.
  4. Classroom taping: All classes should be automatically taped in the first two weeks of the semester. Professors may opt out, but they would have to specifically indicate this request.
  5. Record class participation: The study recorded classroom participation, but at this rate, it would only occur once every ten years. The administration should regularly record class participation data and share with faculty members.

The administration can also take simple steps to encourage the development of faculty-student relationships.

  1. Credit for mentoring: The current law school model only rewards faculty for legal scholarship. Credit faculty for time mentoring and collaborating with students.
  2. Subsidize: Subsidize faculty efforts to connect with students whether through coffee chats, lunches, or other manners of connecting than the traditional office hour.
  3. Diversify the faculty: A significant percentage of women students feel more comfortable approaching women professors. Furthermore, women and men professors engage with students differently, which may benefit different students differently.

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